Into the Sky Islands

We rose early like fresh bread from the oven, as the morning sun baked us inside our tents. We downed some “dino egg” oatmeal to fuel the day ahead, while lizards skittered by our feet. We said goodbye to the beloved shade bush and the hollering donkeys we had befriended during our stay at the campsite oasis, looking forward to our visit to a raptor rehabilitation center called Wild at Heart.

As we bumped down a narrow bumpy road, I was uncertain what to expect for our first interview of the trip. A small “Wild at Heart” sign hung on the fence. We had arrived.


After meeting Bob and Sam, the married couple who founded Wild at Heart, along with the resident house cats, we headed out to the sanctuary. We each donned our equipment and took position, ready for the interview to begin. 


I was captivated by Bob’s backstory of developing an on-call bird rescue center. He spoke of their selfless dedication as though it was obvious: Arizona birds of prey needed a sanctuary so Bob and Sam would make one in their own backyard. Since their endeavor began in the 90s, the entirety of their Phoenix property has been filled with custom structures and handcrafted homes for displaced or injured birds.


Bob introduced us to an injured owl who is no longer able to survive on her own in the wild. Instead she is a permanent resident at the rescue center, serving as a foster mother to orphaned baby owls and also a traveling education outreach companion for the past several years.

Our first interview couldn’t have gone better. As part of the Adventure Term team, I had this unique opportunity to hear Wild at Heart’s inspiring story and see their work in action. I can’t wait to share more about Wild at Heart through our developing AT projects.


In the evening, we had time for reflection and recharging as we made our way south. As we approached Tucson, the saguaros thinned and the Sky Islands loomed on the horizon, with promise of some welcomed mild weather. We fell asleep under the stars at our mountain-side campsite in the clouds. 


Owls & Introductions

Awakening by the side of the lake and with the sun rising, the team prepared for a day of exploration. On the agenda for the day was a search for the Burrowing Owl, a species that has been heavily impacted by rapid human development and habitat destruction. To get an idea of the population health and structure of burrowing owls here in Arizona, the team headed out to Zanjero Park.


Adventure Term cofounder, Kyle Ritland, tracked common nesting grounds for the Burrowing Owls and determined that Zanjero Park would be our best bet to find these beauties. Zanjero Park was developed by an NGO called Wild At Heart as new burrowing grounds for the owls. A passerby explained that they’ve witnessed one male and a few females in the area lately. However, as the team searched the man-made burrows, there were no sightings. Have no fear though— nothing can stop this team from continuing their adventures.


Let’s meet the team members…


Melisa: the official meme lover of our troop, the sunscreen queen, and lover of nature. 


Melisa is a 4th year PhD student at Cornell University in the Genetics, Genomics, and Development program, but is learning how to walk on her hands on the side. To explore the real-world reaches of lab work that Melisa has had experience with, she decided that she wanted to join the Adventure Team and explore the depths of Arizona. Science communication, another passion of Melisa’s, also drove her to this program. 

Olivia: the giggliest of the bunch, an avid rock collector, and a lover and collector of house plants.


Olivia works at the Alliance For The Great Lakes in Chicago as an Outreach Affiliate. Olivia decided to join this program because of her previous experience with field work and scientific work. This work helped her develop her desire to increase the reach of science communication to communities and draw people to nature. 

Catherine: A music maniac, fiesta and siesta master (and founder of Siesta to Fiesta in 60 Seconds), who lives for desert desserts. 


Catherine is completing her first year of her PhD in Genetics, Genomics, and Development at Cornell University. While Catherine loves working in a lab, nature has always drawn her to adventure outdoors. Specifically, Catherine joined the Adventure Term in Arizona to learn more about science communication, but being outside in these beautiful places doesn’t hurt either. 

We can’t forget about the two founders of Adventure Term, Trevor and Kyle Ritland. 

Trevor: a hot-dog bun enthusiast who loathes spices, but is truly one of the goofiest goobers I’ve ever met. He did have a rat tail, AKA his Padawan braid, when he was little so he could be a Star Wars character after all.


Trevor helped found this program because there’s a lot of stories out there about science and endangered species that the general community doesn't know a lot about. The idea of this program is to help in the endeavor to make these topics as exciting as Star Wars or Jurassic Park. He chose Arizona because there is a lot more to this state than people think and it’s a great place to discuss the border wall, mines, and how human development impacts species. Plus, he lives here, which doesn’t hurt. 

Kyle: a bird fanatic, wielder of the peanut butter blade, and the best whistler in town. 


Kyle decided to found this program with Trevor based on the success of their first expedition: The Search For The American Crocodile. During that initial project, many members had no background in biology but were very interested in this topic. Even so, they successfully found crocodiles in the Everglades, made a documentary, and learned about environmental issues without previous background knowledge in the topic. 

Arizona was chosen because it’s an area they’ve never explored before for a project and it’s an area that has a huge range of ecosystems and species in a small range of space. This is one of the most rapidly developing areas that is being handled in the least constructive ways, so it’s a good place to look at habitat degradation, human development, border development, and how species are being impacted.


Stay tuned here to follow along with our adventures as we conduct our first interviews and begin our journey south toward the mountains of Tucson!

  • Blog by Catherine Kagemann, 6/17/19

Into the Desert


With the car packed to the brim, we traded our Phoenix, air-conditioned Air BnB for unpredictable life on the road.  Today marked Adventure Term On The Border program’s first day in the field.  Through this project, we hope to explore the Southern Borderlands and examine the effects of human development on imperiled species in the region. We started off the day as all good adventures should, with some change of plans… 


Our first destination was to hike within the Superstitions Wilderness.  However, upon arrival, we were told we would be unable to enter for our hike, as there was a fire nearby.  While this was slightly disappointing, it did allow us to be able to experience nearby Ghost Town, in all its charisma, while we reformulated our plan for the day. 


We then piled back into our adventure mobile and decided to head off to McDowell Sonoran Preserve for some hiking.  Upon arrival, we were instantly greeted by what will surely be a close friend for the next 10 days—the Arizona heat…


While some acclimating was involved, there was much to draw the attention away, from breathtaking mountain landscapes to some of the most unique plants.


Not only did this hike allow us to adjust to the elements, but it also gave us opportunity to get used to the equipment we will be using to extract stories from these spaces. 


Our trusty leaders, T and K, as they fondly call each other, were able to share some super helpful knowledge about photo and video taking.  Many things to learn that will surely get easier as we continue to gain more experience. 

After breaking under a convenient shade structure for some lunch (which included some nice, car-warmed bread—no need for a toaster here folks!), we retreated to Barnes & Noble for some AC and further trip planning.  We also got to view some of the footage we obtained from our hike and learned some ways to improve our footage going forward, while downing some cold beverages, of course.  We ended the day at our first campsite of the trip—Desert Tortoise Campground at Lake Pleasant, which we are all big fans of (thank you Kyle for your spidy-good camp selection senses).  The lake which the campsites surrounds seems to draw many to this spot, for good reason.  Spirits ended high today as we were able to cool off in the lake and chow down on some good food.  To cap off a great first field day, the sky also treated us to both a breathtaking sunset and mesmerizing moon.  While being turned away from the Superstitions could have had its symbolism, our luck seems to be headed in the right direction.


Blog by Olivia Reda, 6/16/19